The international Action of Churches Together (ACT) alliance of relief and development organisations is continuing to respond to the growing famine in Niger - while in the UK a collective Disasters Emergency Committee appeal has been launched (www.dec.org.uk, or call 0870 60 60 900)
Last year's poor rains and swarms of locusts saw Niger - one of the world's poorest nations - plunged into crisis. Some 3.6 million people are now at risk. A prolonged drought only worsened the deep poverty in the country, says a key ACT body.
Swiss Interchurch Aid (SIA/ACT) started responding in April this year with emergency assistance. It is helping tackle what is called a 'silent famine' by the United Nations. The drought has affected almost a third of the country's population.
The SIA/ACT coordinator in Niger, Bashir Barke Doka, says that for the last few months his agency has been assisting between 25 and 30 villages in Tahoua and North Maradi, the two regions where the NGO is operational through its local partners, reaching some 55,000 people. Plans are to extend the assistance gradually to cover 55 villages in the area.
In total, some 3,800 villages out of 10,000 throughout Niger have been affected by the famine. Of these, 800 are located in the region where Swiss Interchurch Aid / ACT is responding.
According to Barke Doka, part of the problem is that 'people have become so hungry and malnourished over the last few months, that they no longer have the strength to work their land.' He explains that the rainy season this year is good, and that people in the villages being assisted by SIA/ACT are able to continue tilling their fields, 'at least they have some strength.'
Other difficulties also include the fact that working the land, traditionally a male task, has now fallen to the women in many instances, as so many men have gone to urban centres looking for work, desperate to earn something to support their families.
Barke Doka adds that 'there is [nevertheless] a sense of solidarity amongst people. The people of the 30 villages we are assisting with food are sharing it with people from another 80 villages. They share the little they have, but there is just not enough food for people.'
He recounts meeting with one family of eight recently. 'They only had enough food for one person (to eat) in 48 hours,' he explained. 'People are trying to share what they have, but it's not enough.'
What also concerns Barke Doka is that 'in spite of the good rainy season this year, people are so weak from being starved for so long, that they will not reap the benefits of the rains this year. Hopefully it will be better next year. But not now.'
US-based ACT member Lutheran World Relief has been working in Niger, along with SIA, for several years. LWF is in the process of joining ACT appeal AFNG51, which was issued a week ago, requesting 222,840 US dollars from members of the faith-based alliance.
Meanwhile, Christian Aid, Tearfund, CAFOD (which has chipped in £200,000) and other British church agencies are also involved in relief. Along with World Vision and Islamic Relief, they cooperate through the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), an umbrella organisation uniting 13 development agencies. DEC also includes Action Aid, the British Red Cross, Oxfam, Care, Concern, Help the Aged, Merlin and Save the Children.
'The food is starting to arrive, but they desperately need people on the ground to run it,' Brendan Gormley, head of DEC, told the London Times today. 'We don't realise how close to the edge these families live. We must not let people exist on such narrow margins.'
France has now announced that it will triple its food aid to Niger to the equivalent of £3.2 million this year.